Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Jump on bioinformatics bandwagon
Sunit Dhawan

TO gauge the extent to which the infant science bioinformatics is going to change our lives, sample this: A patient goes to a doctor to get treatment for some ailment. He hands over his smart data card to the doctor, who swipes it on a device attached to his computer.

And lo the complete genomic make-up of the patient, along with his health record, appears on the computer screen. With the help of this vital information, the doctor can accurately pinpoint the root cause of his illness and prescribe a personalised medicine to remedy it.

The days of "one-drug-suits-all" are numbered and an era of designer drugs to suit one's specific requirement(s), besides development of molecular medicine and provision of gene-therapy to remove health disorders and enhance immunity, is knocking at the door.

These are just a few implications of the new science of bioinformatics, which, according to experts, is all set to revolutionise the fields of healthcare, life sciences and agriculture in the years to come.

Subject background

After the completion of the ambitious Human Genome Project in 2003, a huge amount of biological sequence data has been generated and is in continuum. It has been made possible by highly specialised techniques like DNA sequencing, micro-array, re-combinatory chemistry, high throughput screening and mass spectroscopy etc.

So large, complex and diverse is the biological data that its manual handling is almost impossible. This is where the advent of computer programming paved the way for the emergence of the new scientific discipline of bioinformatics.

What is bioinformatics?

Bioinformatics is a science aimed at conceptualising biology in terms of macromolecules and then applying informatics techniques to understand and organise the information associated with these molecules on a large scale. Computer programming, besides various statistical and mathematical tools, are employed to translate the complex genomic sequences and understand their structural and functional aspects. Thus, Bioinformatics is a comprehensive application of mathematics (probability and statistics), biochemical and other life sciences and a core set of problem-solving methods (like computer algorithms) to understand the living systems.

It helps the scientists in utilising the crucial genetic information by simplifying the complex sequences into ready-to-use databases containing details of various biological functions.

Course contents

The students opting for bioinformatics are required to study biochemistry, statistics, computing concepts, database systems, programming languages, computational biology, genetics, biodiversity, bio-molecular sequencing and analysis, molecular modelling, genomics and proteomics, commercial/industrial bioinformatics and micro-array analysis. A project and a seminar also form part of the course curriculum.

Admission criteria

A science background is required for getting admitted to courses in bioinformatics, admission to which is granted through various entrance tests or on the basis of merit in the qualifying exam.

Where to study?

The Indian Institute of Technology runs an MTech programme in bioinformatics. Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar, offers a two-year MSc course in the discipline. Besides, University of Pune, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Madurai Kamraj University, University of Pondicherry and Banasthali Vidyapeeth in Tonk district of Rajasthan have postgraduate degree and diploma courses in bio-informatics. Various engineering colleges provide for BTech degrees in biotechnology, of which bioinformatics is a constituent subject. BSc (Bioinformatics) is offered at degree colleges, including MLN College and DAV College for Women at Yamunanagar and Geeta Vidya Mandir at Sonepat in Haryana and several colleges in Punjab and other states.

Prospects

After completing a professional course in this discipline, the fresh graduates and postgraduates stand a fair chance of being absorbed by biotechnology-based and pharmaceutical companies. They can also go in for jobs in research organisations such as Institute of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, Bangalore, Indian Council of Medical Research and Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi. Since it is a new and emerging discipline, different colleges, universities, engineering colleges and other educational institutes also provide a good opening for subject teachers. The fresh pass-outs can also go abroad for specialised research and related assignments.

In short, there is immense scope for the youngsters aspiring to become bioinformatics professionals, provided they attain expertise in a specific area under the discipline.